UNITED NATIONS The U.N. Security Council urged African regional groups and the United Nations on Friday to present within 45 days a specific plan for military intervention in Mali to help government troops reclaim the north of the country from Islamist extremists.
The 15-nation council unanimously passed a French-drafted resolution in a bid to revive stalled attempts to deal with the crisis, which it warned could destabilize the wider, turbulent Sahel region - a belt of land spanning nearly a dozen of the world's poorest countries on the southern rim of the Sahara.
Mali descended into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize two-thirds of the country. But Islamist extremists, some allied with al Qaeda, have hijacked the revolt in the north.
In the resolution the council expressed "grave concern about the continuing deterioration of the security and humanitarian situation in the north of Mali, the increasing entrenchment of terrorist elements including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, affiliated groups and other extremist groups, and its consequences for the countries of the Sahel and beyond."
Once a detailed plan for military intervention in Mali is received from the West African regional body ECOWAS, the African Union and the United Nations, the Security Council said it would be ready to consider a second resolution to approve the move.
The African Union asked the Security Council in June to back military intervention, but the council first asked for a detailed operation plan. ECOWAS mapped out a three-phase operation and Mali's interim leader, Dioncounda Traore, asked the Security Council last month to authorize the force.
But diplomats have said that plan lacked the necessary details, with some voicing serious reservations about the ability of ECOWAS to tackle the northern Islamists anytime soon. Some envoys predict that it will be months before any kind of plan is put in motion and troops are trained and in place.
"The longer the international community allows the situation to fester, the longer we allow the criminal and terrorist networks to consolidate their position, the greater will be the suffering of the people and the danger posed to regional and international peace and security," Ivory Coast U.N. Ambassador Youssoufou Bamba told the council.
Ivory Coast is currently the president of ECOWAS.
The African Union, ECOWAS, the United Nations and others were due to meet in Bamako on October 19 to discuss the way forward. ECOWAS has intervened militarily in past African conflicts, including the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said on Wednesday extremists were "buying loyalty" in northern Mali by using kickbacks from drug traffickers to abolish taxes and pay $600 for child soldiers in a country where most people live on less than $1.25 a day.
Mali was a country once viewed as a poster child of democracy in Africa, but its north has been a center of cross-desert trafficking of drugs, stolen goods and Western hostages. Extremists now control key border towns, which are used as transit hubs for trans-Sahara cocaine and hashish smuggling.
"The traffic of drugs has corrupted the Malian economy but also threatens ... the whole of Africa from the west to the east. It is the lack of economic development in the Sahel which is feeding this desperation," French President Francois Hollande said on Friday during a visit to Senegal's capital Dakar.
France had initially wanted to put a 30-day deadline in the council resolution on a suitable military intervention plan.
Hollande also said this week that Paris was ready to provide logistical, political and material support to an international force, although he has ruled out sending French troops to Mali.
"Mali has called on the international community for help. We have to provide it ... but the primary responsibility lies with the Africans. France will provide logistical support. But as part of a wider operation," he said.
Six French hostages are currently being held in the region by the north African arm of al Qaeda, which has threatened to kill them in the event of military intervention in Mali.
Some regional and Western governments have compared the situation in Mali and the wider Sahel to Afghanistan.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed former Italian Prime Minister and European Commission President Romano Prodi on Tuesday to be his envoy to the Sahel region. The Mali conflict has also exacerbated a deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Sahel, where millions are on the brink of starvation due to drought.
(Additional reporting by Dan Flynn in Paris; Editing by Eric Beech and Eric Walsh)